Popular notions about medicine or things that we consider medicinal oftentimes stem from old wives’ tales and urban legends that are passed down from one generation to the next.
Whether it’s that knuckle cracking causes arthritis or that eating chocolate makes acne worse, you’ll have heard no shortage of myths about things that effect your health. When science gets involved, it often challenges these long-held notions and shows that what we think we know and what we actually know don’t align.
One common story that has made the rounds on the internet in recent years is the idea that rosemary has the power to help improve cognitive function and memory recall. It’s a story that humans have been telling themselves for centuries, and one that health food companies and herbalists have enjoyed repeating in the information age.
Much of the hype around rosemary in recent years is centered on research published by a student at Northumbria University in the UK. To say the least, the research is flawed and should be taken lightly, as it involved only 66 participants in an experiment where subjects were placed in a rosemary-scented room or a non-scented room and asked to perform memory recall tasks.
Participants in the scented room were able to complete seven of the tasks while those in the non-scented room completed four. That represents a number 75% larger, leading health food websites, journalists and bloggers who peddle pseudoscience to use some pretty sensational headlines.
What’s the Reality?
While the research is questionable is does highlight some processes that take place within the brain when exposed to compounds in rosemary which have the potential to boost memory performance. One, known as 1,8-cineole, both smells nice and may perform in similar ways to drugs licensed to treat dementia. It does this by increasing the levels of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.
The compound prevents the breakdown of the neurotransmitter by way of an enzyme. Furthermore, the study is interesting in that it used inhalation of aromas rather than ingesting it, meaning it can be absorbed through the bloodstream quicker than being processed by the liver.
The effects, however, are moderate and further testing would be needed to support the conclusions of a limited sample. The compounds within rosemary have potential to help maintain or improve cognitive function in some way, though researchers really don’t know to what extent yet.
Other studies have been performed using animal models, but positive results have not yet been replicated in humans.
Whether rosemary really does boost memory and cognitive ability or not, it is good for you. It contains healthy doses of vitamin B6, iron and calcium. So, by all means, eat it and yes, sniff it. Nice smells are never a bad thing and in all, rosemary still has a lot of health benefits. But if you’re consuming your rosemary in the hopes that you’ll see a boost in your ability to remember things quickly or think more clearly, the science says you might want to think again.